Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry

Most dialogue participants agreed that the IDF is an ethical army; many also agreed that it is more ethical than most if not all other armies in the world. In the Jewish communities, it is widely understood that Israel invests considerable efforts in preventing harm to innocent civilians in its military actions.

Israel often calls the IDF “the most ethical army in the world.”150 Its operations are carried out in accordance with “Ruach Tzahal” (IDF Spirit), the IDF’s ethical code. It states, “A soldier shall act…out of recognition of the supreme importance of human life. In fighting, he will imperil himself and his comrades to the extent required to carry out the assignment.”151 In practice, Israel argues that it acts within international norms and laws.

Each Israeli soldier is commanded to internalize and adhere to the ‘Purity of Arms’ principle, which has a long and convoluted history,152 starting with internal discussions held in the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine before the founding of the state.153 Nowadays, Purity of Arms constitutes a seminal principle in the education of IDF soldiers and commanders.154 The Israeli army frequently deals with ethical questions and holds numerous discussions on the significance of its moral commitment in order to ensure that it adequately adjusts to changing military conditions.155 There is also a well-developed IDF mechanism that involves legal experts in operational discussions (through the army division level) in order to examine the legality of specific actions prior to reaching operational decisions.156

Opinions as to the justifiability of calling the IDF an “ethical army” are, naturally, varied. Critics of Israel and the IDF tend to judge the army’s conduct in a more negative and harsh manner. Some argue that Israeli policy renders every discussion of IDF conduct meaningless because Israel’s policy, by definition, is unethical. Others, unimpressed by any contradictory evidence or details, point to specific instances in which they claim the IDF is guilty of “war crimes.”157 But there are also those who come to the defense of the IDF emphasizing the complex conditions of battle. Israel must defend itself, they argue, and various measures have proved that IDF has succeeded in preserving a low ratio of civilian casualties when fighting in populated areas – as compared to other armies.158 All this leads to the claim that Israel is being held to a double standard.

A great many seminar participants agreed with the claim that the IDF is indeed an ethical army; many also agreed with the claim that it is more ethical than most or all other armies in the world. Unlike what seemed apparent in several articles critical of Israel during Operation Protective Edge, it appears that there is widespread understanding in the Jewish communities that Israel invests effort, even considerable effort, in preventing harm to innocent individuals in its military actions.

The dialogue group in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania responded with an “absolute yes” to the question of whether Israeli combat policy is ethical, as did the Hungarian participants. In the Glenside, Australia seminar, 17 out of 19 participants agreed that Israel upholds an ethical combat policy, as was the case in a sizeable majority of the other groups. Many seminar participants asserted that the IDF takes exceptional measures to protect human life and agreed that Israel is the exception, in the positive sense, as compared with other countries. During seminars held in numerous communities, participants referred to various precedents in military conduct taken from different regions and wars that underline the gap between the IDF’s conduct and that of other armies.

Examples cited included events such as the bombing of Dresden during World War II, or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of that war. But there were also references to more contemporary examples, such as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (1999), the Libya campaign under NATO’s Joint Force Command (2011), as well as the Saudi bombing of Yemen (2015). A majority agreed with the survey statement that the IDF is “more ethical than other armies in the world” as well as with the assertion that Israel made an effort to avoid harming innocent civilians during the war in Gaza last summer. “President Truman worried firstly about the welfare of American soldiers; only after that did he ask how many Japanese were killed,” asserted a participant in Stamford, Connecticut.159 “Hiroshima and Dresden too, were bombed in order to shorten the war,” said a Dallas participant. “Jenin is like Iraq and Afghanistan when they tried to avoid urban warfare,” commented a participant in Ocean County, New Jersey.160 “American soldiers don’t enter a built-up area without bombings from the air,” said a Los Angeles participant.

It’s worth mentioning that there was a significant gap between the responses of participants over 30 and those of younger participants to the question regarding Israel’s morality during wartime. When survey results were sorted by age cohort, it turned out, for example, that young Jewish respondents tended to think to a much lesser extent than older participants that the IDF “made every effort to avoid civilian casualties in last summer’s war in Gaza” (this despite our working assumption that they have a basic interest and relatively close connection with Israel).161 Almost one-fifth of younger survey respondents did not agree that the IDF made “every effort to avoid civilian casualties during the war in Gaza,” while only a tiny percentage of the older respondents felt similarly. In contrast, 15 percent more of older participants “absolutely” agreed with the statement that the IDF made “every effort…” than the younger participants (an expanded discussion of the gaps between older and younger respondents can be found in this report’s final section):

In addition to understanding Diaspora Jewry’s perceptions of what happens in war, it is fitting to devote a few words to the question of Israeli PR (hasbara) around wartime events. Discontent with Israeli PR was expressed in numerous seminars. Obviously, this may reflect Jewish frustration at Israel’s lack of success “convincing the world” of its justness more than a criticism that reflects a genuine problem with Israel’s hasbara efforts. Still, the number and intensity of these criticisms necessitates that they be brought to the attention, at least in summary form, of decision-makers.

1. Many participants claimed that Israel doesn’t invest enough in PR, and that the Arab case is heard much more clearly during war. They cautioned that while Israel invests considerable money and other resources equipping the IDF, there is an insufficient understanding that “in today’s world, victory on television is more important than victory in Gaza,” as articulated by an Atlanta seminar participant. Her position – whether ultimately right or wrong, represented the positions of numerous participants in many communities.
2. Numerous participants focused on the personal capabilities of Israeli advocates, diplomats, military spokespersons, and politicians. They argued that Israel is not selective enough in choosing people to speak on its behalf, and that it utilizes many in its media campaign who are not suitable and do not understand how to speak to the world. Participants complained that Israeli politicians, both the left and right, speak on Israel’s behalf and this causes damage to Israel – from the left, because they are critical of Israel, and from the right because they behave irresponsibly. As one participant in Ocean County put it, ” [T]hey continue addressing their domestic audience, even when they speak English.”
3. Diaspora Jewry’s frustration that it does not have the real time information/tools that will allow them to engage in their own PR efforts came up in several seminars. As a Parisian participant stated, “Israel should do whatever it believes necessary to protect Israeli citizens, but please provide us on the spot with material to defend the Israeli case.”
4. The expression “mowing the lawn” employed by Israeli spokespersons during the war garnered vigorous disapproval. This served as an example of the belief that Israel does not properly prepare its spokespersons and does not understand what type of language “works” in the international media and among foreign audiences – especially the liberal audiences with whom Israel has an ongoing problem. Other problematic language formulations were mentioned to bolster this claim.
5. A repeated criticism of Israeli PR touched upon the fact that Israel has lost its ability to persuade the world that it truly wants peace. There was a recurring assertion in numerous seminars that so long as Israel does not restore confidence in its desire for an agreement with the Palestinians, its spokespersons will not have much success in persuading the world that Israel acts ethically.
6. It should be mentioned that alongside dialogue participant complaints over PR, there was virtually sweeping agreement that Israel is forced to contend with an increasingly hostile global arena, and that the international media casts Israel as the aggressor and the other side as the victim. This characterization is based on casualty figures rather than why Israel engaged in battle in the first place and who bears responsibility for its perpetuation.